PBS documentary views Thurgood Marshall through a personal lens

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


A new documentary on the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall will air on public television in October, but a free public preview was aired May 3 at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall. The one-hour screening and a panel discussion afterwards was sponsored by the U of M Humphrey School of Public Affairs as part of its “Keeping Faith with a Legacy of Justice” series, which continues through July of this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary year of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Thurgood Marshall

Prior to the screening of Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, the MSR talked exclusively with producer Mick Caouette and both author Juan Williams and University of Baltimore School of Law Professor Jose Anderson, who appear in the film.

Roy Wilkins’ nephew, Roger Wilkins, originally suggested that Caouette, who has done historical documentaries since 1996, present a historical film on Marshall (1908-1993), who successfully argued and won the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated U.S. public schools. “I discovered a lot, but unfortunately this film only really goes right up to Brown,” noted Caouette.


(l-r)  Juan Williams and Mick Caouette Photo by Charles Hallman
(l-r) Juan Williams and Mick Caouette
Photo by Charles Hallman

Williams, who spent time with Marshall and published a bestselling book on him in 1998, said, “I had written a very lengthy profile of Justice Marshall before that in the Washington Post.” His fascination with Marshall first began while researching his award-winning book and multi-part television documentary Eyes on the Prize (1987).

“Here was a guy that was living during the same time I was in Washington, but until I finished Eyes on the Prize, it didn’t occur to me that the man in my time who was the lead player in the civil rights revolution of the 20th century was still alive, literally just blocks away, and I should talk to him,” Williams explained.

Marshall’s association with Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who handpicked him and other young Black lawyers to specifically work on segregation issues, impressed him, admitted Williams. “This was an overall intentional and thought-out strategy for Houston to create a ‘West Point’ for Black lawyers to use the law and to create a lawyer like Thurgood Marshall. He’s created by the NAACP that Charles Hamilton Houston put in place.”

“You don’t win as many cases as he won in an area as difficult without being a very excellent lawyer,” marveled Anderson on Marshall. Williams advises people to refrain from comparing Marshall to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.

“They have such different approaches in how to achieve progress in the Black community,” Williams pointed out. “Even his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover surprised me because people always picture Hoover as the enemy, and here was Marshall who made Hoover into an ally.”

The Brown victory only cemented his success. Before being named to the Supreme Court in 1967, Marshall argued and won more Supreme Court cases than any lawyer in U.S. history.

“He had won so many cases, breaking down segregation in graduate and professional schools,” stated Williams, who said the justice once told him that his biggest case wasn’t Brown but Smith v. Allwright (1944). “That ended the use of segregation by the Democratic Party in Texas in their primaries,” explained Williams.

“They excluded Black people from voting, so by the time [of] the general election, where federal law applies and Blacks were allowed to vote, the only people Black folk could vote for were segregationist politicians that had been nominated by White people.” According to Marshall, the Smith case later “set in place the parameters that make the Voting Rights Act possible,” said Williams.

“I was surprised to find out that he almost was lynched,” said Anderson who added that Marshall’s legacy should be more noteworthy. “I think his intellectual gifts always have been inappropriately disrespected.

“…He was on the court when most of the justices shared his philosophy, so he didn’t need to necessarily speak in his own voice as much as the more noteworthy justices… I think he carries the burden of being the first in so many things, and that’s always a heavy burden.”

Recent Court rulings make the time seem right to show the Marshall film, both Caouette and Williams pointed out. “[With] not only the affirmative action case but also the arguments that are taking place in society over voting rights, the timing is pretty good,” said Williams.

“Race is always a relevant issue,” added Caouette, “so I think we were pretty assured that whenever [the film] would come out, something would be happening.”

Both men were asked if the present generation, through watching the film, would gain a better appreciation of what Marshall did. “I tried to make the film as personal [as possible] to get a personal sense of what the person when through,” said the filmmaker.

“The reason why I am a big supporter of Mr. Caouette’s film is that I really hope that young people will start to understand how change is accomplished,” stated Williams. “One of the difficulties with the Marshall story was that he was a suit-and-tie lawyer. It’s so much easier for young people to [relate] with somebody like a Dr. King, who’s a fabulous public speaker and personality.

“There’s no comparing the work of anyone in this century to Thurgood Marshall,” concluded Williams.


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